A year after the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade, the anti-abortion movement is fractured, with major implications for Republicans.
Some groups want candidates to back away from extreme positions such as strict national bans with limited exceptions. They say any federal law is a pipe dream at this point because there aren’t enough votes in Congress, and Republicans should focus on more moderate positions in order to win elections and rack up anti-abortion policies at the state level.
But others are tacking further to the right — and insisting on holding candidates to those same views.
The result is a “circular firing squad” among advocacy groups and candidates that should be on the same page, said Patrick Brown, a fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.
For example, both Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and former President Trump have faced the ire of the influential nonprofit Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America (SBA) for suggesting that abortion policy should be left up to the states.
The group has said that in order for any GOP presidential candidate to gain its support, they need to support a 15-week national ban at a minimum.
SBA President Marjorie Dannenfelser in April called Trump’s comments a “morally indefensible position.”
He then had a meeting with the group a few weeks later to clarify his views.
In July, Dannenfelser slammed DeSantis for a “lack of will” following an interview with Megyn Kelly where he said he was “running on doing things that I know I can accomplish.”
“There are many pressing legislative issues for which Congress does not have the votes at the moment, but that is not a reason for a strong leader to back away from the fight,” Dannenfelser said.
Meanwhile, there are groups such as Students for Life that argue a 15-week ban is too permissive, advocating at the state and federal level for six-week or “heartbeat” ban bills at a minimum.
Carol Tobias, president of the group National Right to Life, downplayed the divisions within the movement.
“Our early years were very contentious. You know, should we have a human life amendment? Do you amend the Constitution or do we focus on the states? I mean, this isn’t anything new for us. So I guess I’m not surprised or worried as some might be,” Tobias said.
Still, she said she doesn’t see a path forward for federal abortion restrictions.
“We aren’t calling for a national ban because we know it’s not possible. So we are encouraging candidates to look at what they can do as president. What can we accomplish now?” Tobias asked.
She said her organization is advocating for policies such as provider conscience protections, codifying the Hyde Amendment and changing ObamaCare rules to end any federal funding for abortion.
But the anti-abortion movement has faced a string of losses at the state level in the past year, as pro-abortion rights groups have succeeded in passing ballot measures enshrining abortion protection into state constitutions.
Nationally, abortion rights were also cited as a key issue for the disappointing Republican performance in the 2022 midterm elections.
GOP strategists said unless there’s a cohesive message, they worry more defeats could be coming in the future.
Republicans last week lost an abortion proxy fight over a ballot measure in Ohio, with the actual vote to codify abortion into the state constitution looming in November.
A similar measure may also get to the ballot in Missouri after the state Supreme Court ruled the attorney general was illegally blocking the effort from moving forward. And abortion rights supporters in Arizona just launched a ballot measure initiative for 2024.
“I’m trying to encourage my fellow pro-lifers to recognize that having the ideologically pure position and losing in the long run is not better than having a position that’s more moderate and getting 60 percent of what you want, or 80 percent of what you want,” Brown said.
“And I think this has to be a time where, you know, some of the national organizations have to swallow their pride a little bit and recognize that the American people are just not where they wish they were,” he added.
Jason Cabel Roe, a veteran GOP campaign consultant, said in many of the recent state-level efforts, the anti-abortion movement has been vastly outspent, and “intramural disagreements” can be a distraction.
“I would say litigating in between viewpoints and attacking candidates that don’t choose your camp puts us in, I think, a precarious position going into November 2024,” Roe said. “If the pro-life movement was at least not firing at each other, you can focus on trying to be more persuasive in your campaigns and winning the hearts and minds of swing voters that can decide election outcomes.”
Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project, a super PAC that’s funded state anti-abortion and parents’ rights campaigns, said he agrees that there needs to be a cohesive message.
He thinks the winning strategy is to talk up a 15-week federal ban. Leaving it to the states is an unconvincing dodge, he said, because it won’t stop Democratic attacks.
“There’s no way out of here except through, and the through is a reasonable federal limit, 15 weeks … that includes exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother,” Schilling said. “And sorry, but you’re playing in a fantasy world if you think that ‘Oh, if the Republican nominee just stopped talking about abortion, they’re not going to get attacked.’”
All corners of the anti-abortion movement are encouraging Republicans to go on the offense against Democrats.
“Republicans must stop hiding from the topic of abortion. They will be confronted with it whether they like it or not,” E.V. Osment, vice president of communications for SBA, said in a statement to The Hill. “If Republicans do not go on offense with an affirmative pro-life message, their Democrat opponents will wrongfully paint them as extreme, and they will lose.”
It’s just a matter of deciding what that message is.
“I think that for the guys that are pushing for more restrictive measures, like, you have to know what time it is. And you have to understand we’ve had loss after loss after loss, and it’s because voters think that Republicans are going to ban all abortions and have no exceptions,” Schilling said.